By Pam Wright
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Like the rest of Ontario, the number of people falling into homelessness locally continues to rise.
But Chatham-Kent’s allotment from the province to help prevent it is falling short.
That has officials scratching their heads, particularly when some municipalities – including neighbouring Sarnia-Lambton – are seeing double-digit increases in homelessness prevention funding.
In a presentation to council July 10, director of housing services Josh Myers said more people are accessing shelters in C-K than ever before – creating the “difficult problem” of needing to provide emergency shelter to the homeless, without adequate provincial support.
Council heard that Chatham-Kent is only getting an additional $192,000 annually for the next three years for its homelessness prevention programs for a total of $3,039,000 each year, whereas Sarnia-Lambton will receive $5.6 million, with Windsor-Essex receiving $16.7 million.
That’s an estimated $2 million annual increase for Sarnia-Lambton and an estimated $4-million hike for Windsor-Essex, according to Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing data.
Myers released some stark figures about the local issue.
Homelessness isn’t going away, Myers told council, citing inflation and lack of affordable housing as main culprits behind the continued increase, with rent in Chatham-Kent rising 86 per cent since 2018.
“The complete lack of, and ongoing decline of, low rent housing options is the single largest barrier in reducing and preventing homelessness,” Myers said. “Those on social assistance or in low-paying work continue to see their incomes decrease.”
Myers said Chatham’s Victoria Park Place emergency shelter, which opened in June 2022, served 321 households since it began, which equates to 15,479 bed nights. A total of 35 families were provided emergency housing, including 62 children.
“The need is growing and we do not have the tools to fix this without higher levels of government addressing the systems that are allowing people to fall into homelessness,” Myers explained.
South Kent Coun. Anthony Ceccacci praised Myers and his team for their work, noting the report was “very difficult to read.
“This is a very graphic and very concerning report,” Ceccacci said. “It really shows the challenges we’re going to be faced with in the very near future.”
Chatham Coun. Allyson Storey said it’s important to get the matter on the record and to continue to lobby.
“These numbers are staggering,” Storey said, noting homelessness is a local, provincial and national crisis.
Forcing municipalities to carry the issue “almost entirely on their own” is “completely unacceptable,” Storey said.
“These are our friends, our neighbours and perhaps even our family members,” she said.
Because the municipality is currently drawing on a dwindling reserve fund to pay emergency shelter costs, council learned the reserve will be depleted in just two years’ time.
Chief financial officer Gord Quinton said the big question around the issue “is who should be footing the bill” to operate a homelessness shelter and other homelessness prevention initiatives. As it stands, there is no money allocated in C-K’s budget for operating a shelter.
“This is definitely a concern,” Quinton told council, noting the cost of homelessness prevention programs could end up falling on the taxpayer, rather than upper levels of government.
Dr. April Rietdyk, general manager of community human services for Chatham-Kent, told council there’s been ongoing dialogue with local MPPs and other representatives regarding the 6.7 per cent increase C-K received for homelessness prevention programs.
“They are working to get us an answer to those questions,” Rietdyk said, adding local officials have “expressed multiple times” that current funding is not enough in terms of “any type” of sustainability for our homelessness prevention programs.
The Chatham Voice has reached out to Chatham-Kent Leamington MPP Trevor Jones and Lambton-Kent-Middlesex MPP Monte McNaughton on the matter. However, both politicians referred the issue to the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing.
An e-mail message was received from ministry spokesperson Melissa Diakoumeas late last week, stating that going forward, Ontario is spending an additional $202 million each year through its Homelessness Prevention Program and the Indigenous Supportive Housing Program. The e-mail states that the funding is based on a community’s share of homelessness, supportive housing units, low-income households, houses in “deep core” housing need as defined by the CMHC, and Indigenous and youth populations.
The funding is not based on per capita population numbers, the e-mail said.
A motion from Coun. Coun. Ceccacci directing administration to prepare a report for council prior to budget deliberations in November 2023 was approved, asking that Chatham-Kent fully explore its homelessness issue, including possible future costs and solutions that could include retrofitting buildings to create affordable housing.
The motion also calls on council and the mayor to continue to lobby the province on the funding shortfall.